If you were one of the many Magic Valley skiers, boarders, snowshoers or snowmobilers playing in the snow during the past winter, your experiences and feelings toward the season were probably mixed.
From a low snowpack to record industry sales, and from mask requirements to a severe avalanche cycle, the season was well out of the norm.
Starting in the fall, the popularity of backcountry activities generated a surge in sales not seen since the early 2000s. Following a similar trend of bike sales last summer, sales of most backcountry-related equipment soared nationwide.
Market research from NPD Group shows national snow gear sales from August through October were up 76% compared with the same period in 2019. In the ski market, equipment sales — including bindings, boots and skis — were up 51%. Accessory sales — avalanche shovels, beacons, probes and climbing skins — were up 74%. Splitboards, snowboarding’s backcountry sister, saw a 151% increase in sales since 2019.
Claude’s Sports in Twin Falls saw a major turnaround from April 2020 when the shop was looking down a long path of uncertainty due to the pandemic shutdown. But by ski sale season, the shop was ready for a record year.
“We were reordering products from the middle of November to the middle of March,” Claude’s co-owner Ed Hinkle said. “As soon as we got it in, we were sold out. Cross-country and backcountry equipment, along with clothes, were nonexistent or hardest to get.”
Customers left only 28 pairs of ski pants in stock six days into January. Hinkle reordered 369 pairs, sold those, then ordered 400 more and sold those.
“I think we sold 800 to 1,000 black Obermeyer men’s and women’s ski pants alone,” he said. The shop sold all 20 Salmon Shift Touring ski bindings and 14 of 15 Marker Kingpin bindings by mid-February.
Ski ya later
During the 2017 Idaho Snowmageddon event, people flocked to the store and bought copious amounts of winter weather gear. After the pandemic-shortened winter of 2020, the store saw a similar effect of people wanting to get out, buy new gear and go skiing again.
“When you have a good visit to a resort or snow year, and not skied much recently, they (skiers and riders) wanted to get out,” Hinkle said. “This year was that same feeling.”
Gordy Hansen at Idaho Water Sports told a similar tale in an early January email.
“Ski and board sales have been strong this season,” Hansen said, adding that he then had a good selection of snow sports inventory on hand. “Many of our customers have commented that they are skiing more this season than they have in the past.”
“Going into next season we will play it more like a normal year,” Hinkle said. “The whole outdoor industry is thinking these kinds of sales will be about three years (long) from the COVID-affected spike.”
But not all winter sports industries saw booms. Snowmobile sales at one Magic Valley retailer told a different story.
Twin Falls’ Action Cycles sales manager Abe Mingo said their sales of snowmobiles stayed relatively flat.
“We only have six sleds left in the showroom, but overall sales have been pretty flat,” Mingo said in late January. “My peers in Boise maybe sold a little more but production was down too so less inventory to sell.”
Where was the snow?
Southern Idaho experienced a warm winter with a below-average snowpack. According to reports posted by powder forecaster Open Snow, snow totals at the four Magic Valley area resorts showed the tale of low tallies.
Totals for each resort — Pomerelle at 229 inches, Sun Valley at 161 inches, Soldier Mountain at 70 inches and Magic Mountain at between 90 inches and 100 inches — were all below seasonal averages by 15% to 30%.
The slopes of Pomerelle Mountain Resort opened on Black Friday for the 2020-21 season, a day after Sun Valley Resort cranked over its bull wheel, ushering in a post-pandemic hybrid ski season in the Magic Valley.
Although setbacks plagued Soldier Mountain’s opening day throughout the summer and fall, the resort opened Dec. 19. Magic Mountain opened the same day, following a slow start of snow accumulation in the South Hills.
April 13 snowpack totals at these ski hills and other areas where winter sports such as snowmobiling and snowshoeing are enjoyed all ranged between 47% and 89% of average.
One highlight that helped the season at Sun Valley was a heavy snow event in late January that dumped 62 inches in four days. In contrast, the resort only received 34 more inches for the remainder of the season.
Following the four-day storm’s snow totals came a record-breaking avalanche cycle in the Sawtooth Mountains and the Intermountain West.
Fifteen people died in avalanches nationwide in the first week of February — the highest seven-day total in 111 years, according to the National Avalanche Center. The deadliest avalanche in U.S. history claimed the lives of 96 people March 1, 1910, at Wellington, Washington.
It’s not just skiers and boarders who are at risk in avalanche country. The Sawtooth Avalanche Center says that since winter 2003-04, eight snowmobilers died in avalanches in Idaho — a more than two-to-one ratio compared with all other user groups.
“The Galena Summit area is the most popular for skiers and the Baker Creek drainage is popular with snowmobilers,” avalanche specialist Chris Lundy said. “(The area) is definitely busier, which is true across the U.S. too, among all user groups. COVID pushed a lot of people outside.”
A changing demographic
Of those participating in outdoor winter sports, the number of new participants rose 5% since the onset of the pandemic, while snowshoeing rose 4% nationwide.
According to Outdoor Industry Association’s 2021 special report examining outdoor participation post-COVID-19, newcomers are “more likely to be female, younger, living in an urban area and slightly more ethnically diverse than existing participants.”
National ski numbers for the 2020-21 season will not be released until June, but the National Ski Areas Association announced that visitors to U.S. ski areas numbered 51.1 million for the 2019-20 ski season.
“To have two years in a row potentially rank in the top five seasons ever shows the strength of the industry,” the association’s CEO Kelly Pawlak said, referring to the 2018-19 season and the truncated 2019-20 season. “That being said, it is astounding how quickly this season went from promising to a complete disappointment.”
Pawlak pointed out the industry’s resiliency when it comes to recovery in the face of COVID-19.
“Ski areas got to work immediately, making plans to bring back staff and guests,” she said. “We will rebound but the transition is packing a serious punch, requiring bold thinking and adaptation to new protocols while still delivering the same excellent guest experience.”
Ski numbers usually aren’t available from resorts because most are privately held. Sun Valley Co. spokeswoman Sarah Mansfield, however, told the Times-News in an email that the resort experienced a banner year.
Ending the season on a high note
Steve Stuebner, writer and producer of Life on the Range, offered his opinions on how he experienced winter 2021 in a reader comment to the Times-News.
“For me, personally, I felt that last season ended too abruptly, so I was an eager-beaver, ready to hit the slopes with speed this year,” Stuebner wrote. “My son Quinn was home early from college in the late fall, so we skied hard every day possible in McCall, which had a great dose of early snow, allowing Brundage Mountain to groom the slopes and open a wide diversity of runs on Thanksgiving weekend.
“We ripped the groomers almost daily. We got our legs in shape, skiing non-stop runs, our thighs flaming toward the bottom of each run. We grinned ear to ear at the bottom, giggling at how much fun it was.”
As the closing day neared, a sense of normalcy began to emerge at resorts. Musicians played on patios and beer gardens were set up for resort guests.
Every cat-skiing trip was booked on Soldier Mountain from early February to the end of the season.
Events like the Slush Cup Pond Skim at Pomerelle returned. The resort had more than 30 skiers or riders enter their annual pond skim while dozens more lined the icy waters to watch the tomfoolery and mayhem.
Sun Valley unveiled new terrain with the opening of the 380-acre Sunrise Bowl.
“We are so thankful to our employees, guests and the wider community for cooperating and observing the COVID-19 protocols, and helping to create a safe and fun environment on the mountains and in the resort,” Tim Silva, president and general manager at Sun Valley said in a season-end statement.